“Workplace impairment” — how the definition has changed for 2021

by Brianna Crandall — March 26, 2021 — A recent National Safety Council (NSC) survey indicates that 90% of employers are concerned about mental health and chronic stress impacting fitness for duty — in addition to persistent concerns around legal and illicit substance misuse. In response, NSC is becoming the first national organization to call on employers to consider far more than substance misuse when addressing “workplace impairment.”

NSC urges that employer policies and procedures outline “workplace impairment” as anything that could impede one’s ability to function normally or safely as a result of a number of factors — from chemical substances, such as alcohol, opioids or cannabis, to physical factors like fatigue, as well as experiencing mental distress and social factors like stress.

The survey data underscores how the pandemic has impacted workplace safety. In expanding what it means to be impaired in the workplace, NSC aims to reshape the national narrative and help employers adjust internal policies and programs accordingly.

The Council began a holistic assessment of “workplace impairment” in 2020 as the pandemic raged, and NSC found 93% of employers agreed with a broader description — one that extends beyond substances to include health and well-being.

Lorraine Martin, NSC president and CEO, remarked:

The National Safety Council has been the nation’s safety watchdog for more than 100 years, identifying emerging issues and developing resources to help keep workers safe from the workplace to anyplace. We believe the issue of impairment is multifaceted and therefore requires an approach that recognizes all aspects of it. We urge employers to join us in looking at impairment through the new lens that our current moment demands.

Impairment has been a workplace safety issue for decades. The pandemic, however, has forced a new era of workplace safety, one in which employers are grappling with increased substance use and misuse, as well as increased mental health distress, including depression and anxiety — medical conditions that frequently are interrelated.

In particular, the pandemic has worsened the country’s opioid crisis, which has been challenging employers for several years. In the 12-month period ending in May 2020, there were 81,000 fatal drug overdoses — the highest number ever recorded.

More than half of employers surveyed by NSC — 52% — said they know impairment is decreasing the safety of their workforce, while 77% of respondents view impairment as an important consideration when determining an employee’s fitness for duty.

While 70% of employers said they discuss substance impairment during employee onboarding, only 47% discuss other forms of impairment, such as fatigue, mental health and stress. In previous research, NSC found that tired, fatigued employees have negatively impacted 90% of employers.

No matter what is keeping employees from working or driving safely, NSC says it stands ready to help employers deal with the impacts of impairment in the workplace with a robust offering of free resources and tools to help businesses manage these emerging issues. Offerings include cost calculators to understand the business case around substance misuse and fatigue in the workplace and toolkits to implement strategies to proactively address opioids and fatigue.

Additionally, NSC is tackling mental health in the workplace and providing guidance for employers to effectively address. Employers can visit the SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns webpage for playbooks, guides and other resources to help address mental health and wellbeing as part of the Council’s SAFER effort.

To read the Impairment Environmental Scan Employer Survey Results, National Safety Council Partial Survey Report, February 2021, visit the NSC website. For more resources on dealing with workplace impairment, see NSC’s Saving Lives by Addressing Impairment webpage.